The next generation of sport has made it to the heart of New York City and your living room.
Sixteen fresh-faced gamers traveled to the SNY studios in downtown Manhattan Sunday to compete in the Northeast Regional of the inaugural “Universal Open Rocket League,” a 2v2 eSports tournament comprised of three rounds and ending with the Grand Finals in Santa Ana, Calif., where the winner takes home a large portion of the $100,000 prize pool.
Over the past couple years, eSports has grown at lightning speed, with roughly 148 million players and fans around the world and a 51.7 percent increase in revenue since 2016, according to Newzoo. For sports powerhouse NBC and regional partner SNY, it was a no-brainer to tap into the booming market even at the potential costs of straying from traditional sports coverage.
It was only a matter of when and how.
“In my professional lifetime, which is probably 30 years at this point, I can’t really remember a sports-related property or idea that has come onto the scene and generated so much interest and has such a big fan base,” SNY President Steve Raab said. “It’s remarkable when you think about it.”
Rocket League, which now has over 34 million players worldwide, appealed to the Open’s developers more than other eSports because the simple concepts make it easier for traditional sports fans to understand. Each player controls a turbo-charged car in an anti-gravity arena and, as in soccer, works with his teammate to score more goals than the other team.
“We went with Rocket League because it’s clearly got sports in its DNA,”said senior manager of NBC Sports Ventures Michael Prindiville, who has dedicated the past 11 months to developing the Open. “We just thought that that was going to be the most relatable entry point for our audience, and it’s proven that way.
“Like I’m sitting in the control room with guys that are 65 years old who haven’t seen a video game in their life, and they’re starting to cheer for these guys and by the end of the broadcast, they’re pumping their fists and yelling.”
Four of NBC’s regional sports networks — Philadelphia, Chicago, the Bay Area and New York — hosted the regionals with four-and-a-half hours of livestreamed coverage and one hour of televised coverage, complete with a three-person commentating team, on all eight of its networks.
The 2,300 teams who entered to play in the qualifiers became eight at Sunday’s regional, where heavy favorite “Cloud9” survived a small scare in the quarterfinal to sweep the competition and move on to Santa Ana along with finalist Ambition eSports.
The top-ranked team of 17-year-old East Haven, Conn. native Kyle Storer (“Torment”) and 16-year-old Toronto native Mariano Arruda (“Squishy”) sent the commentators into a frenzy when they went down two goals in the first of the best-of-three series, but the duo who have played “nearly 100” Rocket League tournaments together barely flinched. A string of highlight-reel goals from “Squishy” turned momentum in their favor and the teammates — who show no emotion during play but admitted they’re nervous “on the inside” — never looked back.
“I just played this game a lot and then I realized I like this game a lot, but I can also actually be good at it,” Arruda, who revealed he often practices more than five hours a day, said after their quarterfinal win.
The day didn’t go as well for the New York-based team with the self-deprecating name, “Trash Cans,” who made a push to come back in their elimination quarterfinal game but came up short in the series, 2-0, and were sent home.
Alexzander Hamilton Fitch Jr., 17, of Bloominburg and Justin Martin, 18, of Floral Park met just three months ago after exchanging trash talk and playing each other online, but the teammates who put in 40 hours a week — “the same amount as if you were in a job,” Fitch says — have found immediate success.
“I watch and I’m like, ‘OK, he’s doing well at school and he’s a good kid and I’ve coached him in every traditional sport there is, but I don’t know anything about this league or anything really about it,’” said Justin’s dad, John Martin. “And then he said, ‘Dad, we finished third out of 800,’ and I was like, ‘Third out of 800. That’s pretty damn impressive.’
“So if it’s what he wants to do, I told him, ‘Go get it.’”
Just like John Martin’s doubts eased with time and exposure, Raab and Prindiville both believe their regular viewers, who are more likely to tune into NBC for football and soccer and SNY for baseball, can grow to appreciate the excitement and skills surrounding gaming.
They’re following in the footsteps of Turner Network’s eLeague broadcast and ESPN’s eSports vertical, which have both seen strong returns. Whatever the risk, to them the upside far outweighs it.
“To the extent that somebody who’s hoping that there’s Mets programming or Jets programming when we come on or was looking for something else, they won’t stay and we understand that,” Raab said. “But I don’t think there’s a drawback because who’s to say what would’ve been there is what they wanted.”
“People are always like, ‘I don’t get why people aren’t playing baseball and soccer anymore,’” Prindiville said. “For the last 15 years, you’ve had kids without cable, with iPhones and iPads, on YouTube consuming content, and it’s been free content. It’s been people streaming themselves playing games and competitions around games. Those people are now 17, 18, 19, 20 and their heroes are all gamers.
“It’s essentially a microcosm of what’s going on in general … and that’s why it’s blowing up.”